What is Georgia’s Race to the Top Plan for New Teachers?

What is the Georgia Race to the Top (RT3) Plan for New Teachers?

Teach for America

The simple answer is to hire inexperienced and uncertified teachers through contractual arrangements with Teach for America, a political action organization that provides boot camp summer training for college graduates from élite universities.  After five weeks of training, with little to no “student teaching,” these young persons are then dropped into a variety of schools.  For Georgia, most of the TFA cadets are hired by school districts in the metro-Atlanta area.  According to the TFA Metro Atlanta website, since 2000, there are 989 TFA alumni in the Atlanta region, 13 alumni school leaders, and 300 corps teachers hired this year for Atlanta area schools.   And according to the AJC, four of the TFA alumni are running for a place on the Atlanta School Board.

The New Teacher Project

The New Teacher Project is essentially a step-child of Teach for America.  It was given birth in 1997 with the aim of giving poor and minority students equal access to effective teachers.  TNTP’s CEO was Michelle Rhee, a TFA alumni, from 1997 – 2007.  TNTP uses  TFA boot camp model with a five-week “pre-service” summer training period.  TNTP teachers then begin their teaching assignment in the Fall.

trendsThese two programs train teachers, just as we train athletes.  At their websites you will find falsehoods about so-called traditional teacher education.  They make the claim that traditional teacher education stress theory, and don’t offer practical field-based experiences for its students.  Both of these are falsehoods.  I entered the field of science teacher education in 1969, and from the beginning all of our programs at Georgia State University were field-based, and might be described as programs that mingled theory and practice, and prepared people to be educators.

And to make matters even more fuzzy, Georgia State University’s College of Education has partnered with TFA to offer a route for recruits to earn a teaching certificate and a master’s degree in education.  Although I do not know the circumstances that led to the partnership, it is questionable why GSU would agree with TFA that putting inexperienced cadets in the poorest classrooms with out student teaching type internships is disappointing.  So on the one hand, TFA and TNTP claim that traditional teacher education is too theoretical, but on the other hand, they are quick to ask the traditional provider of teachers to educate their recruits.

That said, the facts are that the directors of the Georgia Race to the Top advocate putting the most inexperienced teachers in some of the poorest schools in the state where the evidence is that more experienced teachers with advanced degrees would perform at higher levels.  Figure 1 is evidence that the RT3 favors rookies over experienced teachers.  The evidence is in Table 1, which includes four budget lines showing how $30,375,235 million will be spent on turning around the lowest achieving schools.

Figure 1. Turning Around the Lowest Achieving Schools Budget Items in Georgia's Race to the Top Grant. (Race to the Top Scope of Work)
Table 1. Turning Around the Lowest Achieving Schools Budget Items in Georgia’s Race to the Top Grant. Table was copied from www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/state-scope-of-work/gerogia.pdf

Teach for America has a $15.6 million contract with Georgia’s Race to the Top over four years, while The New Teacher Project has a $12 million contract with RT3 (the difference in the amount shown in the graph is to pay for supervisory teachers) .  Each of these projects is a fundamental part of the RT3 plan to turn around the lowest-achieving schools in Georgia.  The lowest-achieving schools in Georgia are closely monitored and put most of the resources into improving the achievement scores of students in mathematics and English/language arts.


The language used to describe this effort is tied up in the notion of increasing the pipeline of effective educators.

From the RT3 budget is this statement:

Increase the pipeline of effective teachers through partnership with Teach for America in Atlanta Public Schools, Clayton County, DeKalb County and Gwinnett with the first class of new TFA recruits beginning in the school year 2011-2012.  Funding included in section E project 24: $15,6000,000).

A separate line in the budget points the same kind of arrangement with The New Teacher Project, which will provide new teachers in Savannah, Augusta, and Southwest Georgia, for $7,568,395 million.

RT3 mandates that if a school is considered a turn around school, typically the principal is replaced, and many of the teachers are replaced with new teachers.  There is also the possibility that the school will become a charter school managed by a charter corporation.

Where will the state find the teachers to fill the gaps in these schools?  Well, that’s easy to answer:

  • Teach for America
  • The New Teacher Project

So as we see, the effort to work with schools whose students do not do well on achievement tests boils down to replacing experienced teachers with new recruits who will only stay on for two years.  This is simply not a sustainable approach, and ignores the intention of experienced teachers who understand from their earlier work with children that there is more to school than getting kids to pass a test.

Yet, the plan is that TFA will provide between 900 – 1100 uncertified teachers for metro-Atlanta schools, while TNTP will train 200 – 300 uncertified teacher for Savannah, Augusta, and Southwest Georgia.

 What about “traditional” Teacher Education?

Does the RT3 have any interest in investing in colleges and universities who have been in the business of preparing teachers for decades, and quite effectively.  The short answer is yes, but at lower levels than for TFA and TNTP, and primarily in the fields of science and math.

The RT3 awarded grants to three Georgia universities, University of West Georgia, Southern Polytechnic University, and Valdosta University.  According to RT3, these programs replicate the teacher education program developed at the University of Texas, the Uteach program, which is a traditional science and mathematics teacher education program.  The Uteach program is very similar to the science and mathematics teacher education program at Georgia State University, the TEEMS program, which was developed in the early 1990s, and is still operating at GSU.

The RT3

The $4 billion Race to the Top contest was won by 11 states and the District of Columbia.  The goal of the RT3 is for states to make sure that student achievement scores increase according to performance standards which have no basis in science.  I have spent hours studying the Georgia Race to the Top budget and work plan.  I normally do not study budgets, but I’ve been a critic of the RT3 ever since it was announced, but in order to do this, it was paramount that I look into the details.

This post only exposes a tiny piece of the complexity of the RT3.  Millions are spent on testing and evaluation, creating instruments to measure the effectiveness of teachers, millions of dollars to set up a data warehouse to store a wide array of student and teacher data.

Because the model of learning that is advocated by the RT3 is behavioral, and not constructivist, the drive is to produce teachers who can get results on achievement tests.  And so it doesn’t matter how experienced the teachers are, according to the RT3, they only need to be able to teach to the test, and hope that students score high enough so they won’t contribute to their school being labeled, “needs improvement.”

Well, there you have it.  Is the nearly $400 million that Georgia received to improve education being used in ways that you think will improve schooling?


How Georgia Could Turn Around Turnaround Schools

Georgia, like other states, has identified schools whose students and teachers have been labeled failures on the basis of high-stakes tests. These tests measure the narrowest and possibly the least important aspects of schooling, namely the ability to answer multiple choice questions on the lowest level of content in math, or science, social studies or English language arts.

I argue here that curriculum development and advanced sabbatical month-long staff seminars in the context of the elimination of high-stakes tests would do more to help struggling schools than punishing them.  Students in these schools are quite capable of engaging in projects, original work in art, music and science,  hands-on minds-on learning, as well as learning how to learn.  Using inquiry-based learning, and steering away from a teach to the test mantra will go along way not only in so-called “turnaround” schools, but any school.

Many of  the labeled “failing” schools end up being closed, in others the principal and at least half the teachers are replaced by unlicensed teachers from Teach for America (TFA). Closing or labeling schools alters the ecology of these communities, and instead of providing resources, and creating opportunities for curriculum innovation and advanced staff development, these plans fail to discuss the real problems–poverty, recreating uninteresting curricula, and using punishments and rewards to control the system.

Our schools can not solve the problem of poverty.  But if schools were integral and public spaces of its community, then the school would be a place that parents send their children to uncover their natural abilities and interests, and pursue learning about the world, and enriching each other.

But we have created an environment in which success in school is based for the most part on  high-stakes testing.  There isn’t a need for high-stakes tests.  The scores that are generated from these tests do nothing to improve individual student learning, and do not give feedback to teachers to improve instruction.  These tests only serve the state as way to create a metric that is used to punish or reward schools, teachers and students.  Do we send our children to school to take tests? Is that why we send our children to school?

In the “Defies Measurement” film (5 minutes) that follows, Shannon Puckett exposes the damage caused by high-stakes testing on our children, teachers, schools and communities.  Shannon started this film in 2004, but for many reasons, never finished the film.  However, now she is reaching out to everyone to give a small amount of money to fund the completion of the film.  She is close to the amount she needs to raise. (Update: the monetary goal was reached)  This short clip will give you insight into the film, and in it you will hear from amazing teachers and top researchers who tell stories and give evidence that the present era of test-based reform is damaging students.

Schools should not be labeled failing in the first place. The measurement used is a sliver of the goals of schooling in a democratic society. As stated in the film, no other comparable country fails it’s students or schools on the basis of these narrow and unreliable tests.

The schools in these communities need the same kind of education that takes place in schools where students are successful–typically those in affluent neighborhoods.

As Lisa Delpit says, kids need good teaching in the context of an interesting and diverse curriculum. They do not need neophyte teachers who’ve been trained to teach to the test.  They need teachers who as Lisa Delpit puts it are “warm demanders.”

In her more recent book, Multiplication is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children, Dr. Delpit provides the insight to understand what schooling should be in public schools.  She says that the teacher is crucial in teaching poor children.

But she doesn’t advocate using tests to try and name so-called bad or not so good teachers.  No, she reminds us how important teachers are in the lives of children.  To hold schools hostage prevents teachers from doing the sorts of things that she advocates.

Dr. Delpit says:

And so, to my students who are teachers, and to all teachers, I reiterate: Your work does matter more than you can imagine. Your students, particularly if they are low-income children of color, cannot succeed without you. You are their lifeline to a better future. If you put energy and expertise into your teaching, learn from those who know your students best, make strong demands, express care and concern, engage your students, and constantly ensure that your charges are capable of achieving, then you are creating for your students, as Professor Bill Trent once said about his own warm demander teachers, “a future we could not even imagine for ourselves.”  Delpit, Lisa (2012-03-20). “Multiplication Is for White People”: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children (p. 88). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

With the funds that Georgia has allocated in its Race to the Top (RT3), curriculum development combined with sabbatical advanced staff development seminars would infuse enthusiasm and new confidence in the faculty and would result in a school culture of innovation, hope and change.  Closing schools or replacing them by firing principals and teachers and hiring inexperienced teachers is not in the best interests of students.  We need to preserve our schools, not abandon them.

Further investigation into why we find ourselves labeling schools as failures needs to be made.  Why is it that most of these schools are in urban districts?  Why aren’t these schools provided the same resources as schools in other parts of the same district?  Why do we think it is acceptable to close or convert schools to charters run by outsiders who have little vested interest in the community? Why?

For further reading:

Georgia’s Turnaround Plan: Hire TFA and TNTP Cadets

Like all states that were winners in the Race to the Top (RT3) competition, Georgia’s scope of work entails four “project” areas: (1) standards and assessment (2) data systems (3) great teachers and leaders and (4) turn around the lowest achieving schools.

In this post, I am going to look at the fourth goal of the Georgia’s RTT, how they plan to turn around low achieving schools.

According to the Georgia Race to the Top plan,

  • Georgia identified 40 middle and high schools that are considered “persistently lowest-achieving” based on historical student achievement and student need. Each of these schools are in the process of implementing one of four school intervention models aimed at creating radical change throughout the school community.
  • Through RT3, the State will:
    • Create a new office within the Georgia Department of Education focused exclusively on leading turnaround work for the persistently lowest-achieving schools.
    • Connect lowest achieving schools to additional support through partnerships with Communities in Schools of Georgia to aid in dropout prevention and Teach for America (TFA) & The New Teacher Project (TNTP) to aid in teacher pipeline development in hard-to-staff areas.

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 6.44.47 PMThe plan is to work with LEA’s in Georgia with lowest-achieving schools by making the LEA’s sign a memorandum of agreement (MOU) that commits the LEA to carry out one of four reform models (by the way, if you think this reform, you might to stop reading now).  Here are the four reform models taken from the Georgia RT3 2012 report.

  1. Turnaround Model–fire the principal, and rehire no more than 50 percent of the staff and give the principle “sufficient flexibility to improve student outcomes.
  2. Restart Model–convert a school or close and reopen it under a charter school manager/operator (private) and hire new teachers and a principal.
  3. School Closure–close the school and send the students to other schools located outside of their community to schools that are higher achieving.
  4. Transformation Model–fire the principal, somehow increase teacher and school leader effectiveness, institute comprehensive instructional reforms, increase learning time, and give operational flexibility.

In Georgia, schools are rated as priority schools (lowest achieving), focus schools, and reward schools are those Title I schools that have a high percentage of low-income students.  The state released a list of 78 of the lowest-performing schools yesterday.  Not all of these schools are part of the RT3, but what is interesting is that in the RT3 report, there is no mention of poverty or low-income families in the part of the report that describes how the state will turn around the lowest-achieving schools.

The state has a few ideas to turn around school:

1.  Fire the principal and replace at least half the faculty.

2. Use the Trojan Horse to contract with Education Resource Strategies (ERS), a not-for-profit corporation in Boston explain to districts how to pay teachers and divide their resources.

3. Pay Teach for America $15,600,000 and The New Teacher Project  $9,168,395 to offer new recruits who are un-certified and lack teaching experience and put them in the lowest achieving schools.  The state also has made it possible for TFA and TNTP to be a certification providers through the Georgia Professional Standards Commission.

Of the $30,375,235 allocated for turning around the lowest achieving schools, only 18 percent is allotted to resource allocation support and the CIS Georgia-Performance Learning Center.  Eight-two percent is used to hire uncertified recruits from TFA and TNTP, who will be short time teachers.

Diane Ravitch and Paul Thomas offer convincing evidence that efforts that include firing principals, hiring inexperienced teachers, increasing time spent in school, and increasing the surveillance by testing and monitoring of students and teachers simply avoids the real issue of how poverty affects academic achievement.

First, Paul Thomas has written extensively about poverty and how it affects the lives of children and adults.  You can follow him on his website here.  On Truthout, he writes:

The lives of adults in the United States are more often than not the consequences of large and powerful social dynamics driven by poverty and privilege–and not by the character or tenacity of the individual.  That fact is the basis for the needed new ways of thinking about education posed above.

As Dr. Thomas suggests, new ways of thinking are required if, as he says, the U.S. can fulfill its promise of universal public education. The state of Georgia is failing in this regard especially when it is spending millions of dollars to privatize teacher education and the management of schools through charters.  The further we drift from a public education, paid for by the citizens of the state, the more dangerous it becomes to offer an education that is humanistic and enriching.

Diane Ravitch, in her new book, Reign of Error, provides evidence that poverty is highly correlated with low achievement.  As she points out, the corporate reformers (who have greatly influenced the RT3) claim poverty is an excuse for ineffective teaching and failing schools.  In their view, if you fire bad principals, and name the bad teachers, fire them, and replace them with bright, but uncertified and inexperienced TFA and TNTP recruits, we’ll solve the “achievement” and “gap” problem.

The authors and directors of the Georgia RT3 program need to think about what Ravitch says about poverty and achievement.  She says:

If no other nation has managed to eliminate the achievement gap between children of the haves and children of the have-nots, why expect that the United States can do it without a major investment in reducing the causes of low achievement, which exist before the first day of school? If nations that devote significant resources to ensuring that their children are healthy have not closed the gaps, why expect that the United States can do so without improving the material condition of children’s lives?

Other countries demonstrate that the gap can be narrowed, but narrowing it requires a willingness to protect children and families.

The reformers’ belief that fixing schools will fix poverty has no basis in reality, experience, or evidence. It delays the steps necessary to heal our society and help children. And at the same time, it castigates and demoralizes teachers for conditions they did not cause and do not control.  Ravitch, Diane (2013-09-17). Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (Kindle Locations 2041-2048). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Georgia needs to “fess up” and admit that it is not taking seriously the causes of low achievement.  Hiring new teachers and paying firms to manage Georgia school district’s budgets is not at all related to improving school.




Is Inquiry The Magnum Principium of Teaching?

Seventh Article in the Series, The Artistry of Teaching

Is Inquiry the Magnum Principium of Teaching?  If it is, what is it and how does it help us understand teaching, especially if we want to explore artistry in teaching.

In our view inquiry is the sin qua non of experiential teaching and learning.  When teachers advocate inquiry, they are talking about a philosophy of teaching and learning that is rooted in social constructivism and humanism.  Inquiry evokes a sense of wonder, the subject of a book written by Rachel Carson, but published posthumously more than three decades ago.

A Sense of Wonder

humingbird.jpgBy the early 1950s, Rachel Carson was well-known and had a reputation as “poetic” writer based on the publication of Under the Sea Wind (her first book, 1941), Sea Around Us (1951) and The Edge of the Sea (1955).  In his book, The Gentle Subversive (public library), M.H. Lytle explored the book that we all know about by Rachel Carson, Silent Spring.  In that book, Lytle explores how Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring ignited the rise of the environmental movement.  At the time, the pesticide and bio-chemistry industry was furious with Carson, and used an early version of “junk science” to impugn her research on the relationships between DDT and other insecticides on ecosystems, and on human health.  Frenzied criticisms came from the these industries, but because of environmental activists, the U.S. Congress passed the legislation banning DDT, and later created the Environmental Protection Agency.

Perhaps one of the most important legacies of Rachel Carson is her life devoted to asking questions and exploring the natural world, and from that writing about science, wonder and children.  Because of the financial success of her “sea” trilogy, Carson was able to leave the her full-time job at the Fish and Wildlife Service, and become a full-time writer.  She had spent two decades conducting environmental research as well as writing and editing wildlife publications.  Now, she was able to focus on writing about environmental problems resulting in the publication of Silent Spring.

But the publication that is most relevant here is her book The Sense of Wonder (public library).  Carson epitomized  the child-like quality that science teachers hope to evoke out of their students each day and each new year of teaching.  Carson spent most of her life exploring the sea, especially the coast of Maine.  Her life was one of inquiry–an exploring of the world, and a life dedicated to writing about her inquiries.  In 1957, after a family tragedy in which one of her nieces died, Rachel Carson adopted a five-year old boy, Roger Christie, and instilled in him, the sense of wonder she experienced as a scientist.  Her book, The Sense of Wonder (which was dedicated to him), is full of her experiences with Roger as they explored the beaches and woods of Maine, and made inquiry a day-in and day-out experience.  Carson was a teacher through her writings, and it seems to me that she would side with those teachers who are swimming upstream and in the words of Mr. Ed Johnson, against the “disintegrative mandates and effects from, such as, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition, charter schools, Teach for America, and, yes, even corporate and philanthropic colonialists. (personal correspondence).

Emotions and Impressions

Carson wrote that “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.”  But Carson believed that all children a born with a sense of wonder.  She put it this way:

If a child is keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.

Screen Shot 2012-05-26 at 7.05.40 PMCarson goes on to talk about the world and suggests that what the teacher (parent, sibling, friend) can do to guide her, it to remember that it is “not half so important to know as to feel.  She said,

If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused—a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity admiration or love—then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.  Carson, Rachel (2011-04-19). The Sense of Wonder (Kindle Locations 97-98). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.

Inquiry, in this light, is the magnum principium of teaching because it is instills an attitude and emotional sense of wonder and investigation that does not depend on techniques (although they are important) or specific methods (also important), but a deep sense of purpose as a professional educator.

Two of my most inspirational teachers did not use hand-on strategies, but they exuded emotional and inspirational attitudes.  They both believed in their students, and that every student in their class could learn and understand the content of their courses.  One was a professor of meteorology, and I can tell you that he never used a declarative sentence.  Every utterance was a question and a smile (Paul Westmeyer at Bridgewater State University, MA).

The other was Dr. Tom Lippincott, who was Professor of Chemistry at The Ohio State University.  He was one of the most humanistic teachers that I ever met.  He would warmly invite any student to his office after to class if they didn’t understand or couldn’t teach another what he talked about in class.  They each exuded a sense of wonder for their subject, and created an environment of inquiry in which we were searching for understanding in the sciences of meteorology and chemistry.

Practicing What We Preach

For more than three decades I worked with a community of science educators not only at Georgia State University, but at other universities in the U.S., and other countries, especially Russia, Australia and Spain.  It was quite clear that many of these science educators have strong beliefs that inquiry should be the cornerstone of science teaching.  And for many of them, inquiry was the magnum principium of teaching.

Yet, there was a gap between what was taught about teaching at the university and what actually happened in K-12 classrooms.  Were we ignorant of the complexities of teaching, or did we think that teaching theories such as social constructivism and inquiry-based teaching could overcome issues and realities of the classroom?

It wasn’t that these science educators didn’t have relationships with teachers and schools.  Many of these professors worked with their students in clinical experiences, and indeed, much of the research in science education over the past thirty years was qualitative and experiential.  Research was done in the context to real classrooms.

But, could these science teacher educators teach real kids in real schools?

Science Teacher Educators as K-12 Teachers (public library) is a new book that tells the stories of 23 science educators who left the confines of the university, and stepped into positions in K-12 classrooms to teach elementary, middle and high school students. (Disclosure: I wrote the closing chapter of the book, and so read each account and became very familiar with each experience.  The editors of the book, Dr. Michael Dias, Dr. Charles Eich, and Dr. Lauri Brantley-Dias were graduate students at Georgia State University while I was professor there).

The book is an autobiographical collection of papers written by science teacher educators who describe their experiences of going back into the classroom to not only share their successes, but to highlight the conflicts that they met in real classrooms.  For some of them it was very much like the first year of teaching that all of us have experienced at one time or another.

One of the most important ideas that I take away from their narratives is how the professional images of these science educators changed because they were willing to take risks, and work in a culture that was very different from the one given by academia.  By crossing cultures from academia to public school and informal science settings, these professors put themselves in the environment of teachers, who in many ways were more knowledgeable about the practice of teaching science and how students learn, than they were.

Challenges to Inquiry–Standards and Test-Based Reform

Trying out inquiry-based teaching, and social constructivist approaches was a central goal of most of these teacher educators.  One of the valuable contributions of research of this nature is the descriptive honesty of the writers who were not afraid to admit that teaching was difficult, or that they simply were not ready to meet the challenges of high school teaching in an urban setting.  Inquiry-based and constructivist teaching is not neat and tidy.  It requires professional knowledge and experience that are years in the making.

For those policy makers who think that all we have to do is raise the assessment bar, offer online courses, and hold teachers accountable to tests results that are unreliable and simply not a valid measure of teaching, why not try a month, or 1/2 year, or for OMG, one year of teaching in a classroom in any school in the nation.  There is pretty good evidence that their views about reform will change, and they might wake up and listen to educators and teachers who’ve been doing it for years.

The authoritarian standards and test-based reforms that dominate education policy are a challenge to science teachers who embrace an experiential and inquiry-based philosophy of teaching science.  In the writings of these science educators, inquiry, constructivist learning, and problem-based teaching were high on their list of priorities, and they wanted to test their philosophies in science classrooms.  Assessment policies for implementing standards-based reform may present barriers to inquiry-based science teaching.  This is a continuing issue that challenges the science education research and practice community.

The interplay of standards-based reform coupled with high-stakes testing has created a conundrum for science teacher educators that advocate inquiry and problem-based learning, and those that would submit that students’ lived experiences ought to be the starting place for science learning.  This interplay was addressed by a some authors in this book. Carolyn S. Wallace, Professor of Science Education, Indiana State University, in her chapter on policy and the planned curriculum, chronicles how policies and the standards-based accountability system created conflicts for inquiry-oriented teachers.  Dr. Don Duggan-Hass, Senior Researcher at the Paleontological Research Institute, Ithaca, NY, in his chapter, The Nail in the Coffin, tells us how returning to the classroom actually killed his belief in schooling (but not public education).

Carolyn Wallace on Inquiry and Biology Teaching

In a courageous and compelling chapter in this book, Carolyn Wallace takes us on a journey that in my opinion is a realistic portrait of science teaching in an American high school.  Going through the hiring process, and then being assigned to teach biology at the high school level, Wallace gives us insight about the conflict between the desired goal of teaching by inquiry within the context of authoritarian science curriculum and high-stakes testing.  Using a progressive teaching style that included a learning community orientation, questioning, active collaboration and task engagement, Wallace was ready to carry out reform-minded science teaching.  However, her account details a different picture:

As I attempted to implement innovation in my classroom and engage in discourse with other teachers about innovation, I often felt that I was “up against a brick wall.” Constraints of the mandated curriculum and testing regimes, along with social pressure to conform to the school culture, proved to be much more profound than I had ever imagined as a university academic.

The analysis of her day-to-day teaching experience was profound.  According to the critical realist social theory that she used to look at and explain the various structures affecting schooling, she indicated that the social forces most affecting her life as a biology teacher included the power of the state legislature and the state Department of Education to decide what she could do in the classroom.

Wallace outlines the dilemma that exists between the science education community’s enduring belief that science should be taught using inquiry and problem-based approaches and teachers are held accountable to a planned curriculum that doesn’t allow for flexibility and adaptation.  Although not an easy task, she was successful in wading through state standards and testing barriers, and was able to engage students in inquiry-based activities, which she describes in her paper, but always with an eye on the fact that the students would have to pass end-of-course exams.

A major implication of her experience for me is what she learned and shared about how the political climate, which is centered on high-stakes standardized testing, affects the day-to-day lives of science teachers.  As she suggests, more research is needed in this area, and there needs to be efforts to democratize the participation of teachers in the use of standards by enabling more flexibility and plurality.  Teachers need to be empowered to make the decisions that will lead to more open-ended and inquiry learning. Perhaps the “common” implementation of standards along with the accountability movement abates innovation and flexibility, causing administrators to be unwilling to be open to teachers adopting and modifying standards to reach out to the needs of their own students.  Carolyn Wallace explains that instructional goals that encourage inquiry are in direct conflict with the authoritarian curriculum, which by its very nature is rigid, technical, and decontextualized.

One More Thing

Artistry in teaching, as in any other creative enterprise, is not clear when we look at products (or test scores) because it is a non-linear process.  Real science teaching, especially if it is based on inquiry and constructivism is not the idealized version that the authors of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) had in mind when the NGSS was published earlier this year.  The facts of science “command” the central place in this view of science education, and that is an unfortunate set of circumstances.

In a new and provocative book entitled Ignorance: How It Drives Science (library copy), Stuart Firestein offers a powerful rebuke to a static (standards based) view of science.  In Ignorance, a course taught by Dr. Firestein at Columbia University, the focus, according to the website focuses particularly on what we don’t know.  Dr. Firestein imagines ignorance as a creative force in science, and indeed, ignorance is that space of the unknown that leads to provocative questions.  Science educators who advocate inquiry-based teaching are working on this edge if you will, between the known and the unknown.

Indeed, Firestein says this about ignorance, inquiry and questions:

Questions are more relevant than answers. Questions are bigger than answers. One good question can give rise to several layers of answers, can inspire decades-long searches for solutions, can generate whole new fields of inquiry, and can prompt changes in entrenched thinking. Answers, on the other hand, often end the process. Firestein, Stuart (2012-03-26). Ignorance: How It Drives Science (p. 11). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

By working within this framework, teachers bring to students a new framework for understanding science, but as importantly, themselves.  How better to help teenagers than to let them in on little secrets such as this one from Dr. Firestein’s book:

Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty, finding pleasure in mystery, and learning to cultivate doubt. There is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome.  Firestein, Stuart (2012-03-26). Ignorance: How It Drives Science (p. 17). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

What do you think about inquiry-based science teaching.  Is it the magnum principium of teaching?


The Art of Mingling Practice and Theory in Teaching

This article is the Fourth in a series on The Artistry of Teaching.  

In 1896, the laboratory school of the University of Chicago opened its doors under the directorship of John Dewey (Fishman and McCarthy 1998).  Dewey’s idea was to create an environment for social and pedagogical experimentation.  Theory and practice should mingle, and the laboratory school as Dewey conceived it would be a place for teachers to design, carry out, reflect on, and test learner-centered curriculum and practice.

What is the relationship between practice and theory, and how does this relationship relate to artistry in teaching?

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying

In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.

If you can’t explain it to six-year-old, then you don’t understand it yourself

enstein_on_bikeIn my career as a science teacher educator, I valued both practice and theory.  But in my day-to-day work with people who wanted to be teachers, it was important to give a balance between practice and theory.  Indeed, in the first secondary science teacher preparation program that I had a part in designing, we engaged students in this program who held degrees in biology, chemistry, physics, geology, and engineering with students in elementary, middle and high school during their one-year program.  As Einstein also said, “if you can’t explain it to six year old, then you don’t understand it yourself.”

So, early in the student’s first quarter at Georgia State University, they found themselves co-teaching in an elementary school working with students ranging in age from 6 – 11.  We believed that if students in teacher preparation programs were going to appreciate and value educational theory, then they had to start from the practical, day-to-day experiences of elementary age students and their teachers.  In the “Science Education Phase” program, teacher education students followed the first term with an internship in a middle school teaching students ages 12 – 14, and then in the third “Phase” they did a full internship in a high school in metro-Atlanta.  The Phase Program, which was implemented from 1970 – 1983 prepared science and engineering majors to be secondary science teachers (grades 7 -12).

Because of the range of experiences with K-12 students that these teacher education students had, it was possible to mingle practice and theory, and help them construct personal and social knowledge about teaching and learning.

In Powerful Teacher Education: Lessons from Exemplary Programs, researcher Linda Darling-Hammond focused on identifying good (powerful) teacher education programs.  According to Darling-Hammond, they are rare.  In their research, seven programs were selected for intensive study (she makes the comment that there were many other candidates).  Case studies were written for Alverno College in Milwaukee; Bank Street College in New York City; Trinity University in San Antonio; the University of California at Berkeley; the University of Southern Maine near Portland; the University of Virginia in Charlottesville; and Wheelock College in Boston.  All of these programs “mingled practice and theory,” were characterized as learning-centered and learner-centered, as well as being clinically based.

Indeed, one of the characteristics of these teacher education programs was that the curriculum linked theory and practice, and one was not more important than the other.  In successful programs, which typically take more than a year of graduate work, there is a to and fro, back and forth between courses and field work.  The programs were also based on the idea that students build knowledge about teaching, and construct meaning from experience (observation, co-teaching, teaching), reflection, advanced study of pedagogy.

In the science education teacher preparation experiences at Georgia State University, students were immersed in a program that valued practical, field-based experiences and experiential learning in university courses.  Our theory of teacher preparation was to mingle practice and theory.  And, we believed that we should move in the direction of practice to theory, not the other way around.  We accomplished this in the TEEMS Program (Teacher Education Environments in Mathematics & Science) which was inaugurated in 1994 and is the teacher education program for secondary teachers at GSU.

In the past, students took education courses, and then “practiced” what they learned during student teaching.

Little to No Mingling in Teach for America

This antiquated approach, however, is exactly how the Teach for America program trains candidates for teaching.  Most of the TFA graduates then are placed in schools in urban or rural areas, in schools that could benefit much more with experienced and wise teachers.  There is not enough time for TFA to advocate a powerful program that mingles practice with theory.  They are exposed in 5 weeks to education methods and then parachuted into schools unprepared for the realities they will face.

It is one of the great tragedies of contemporary teacher education, that the Teach for America program prepares so many teachers, most of whom do not have a commitment to the teaching profession, but instead use these experiences as stepping-stones to something else, and on the backs of many citizens in poor neighborhoods.

Teacher education programs that provide intensive preparation over time actually challenge students intellectually while helping them learn hands-on approaches that help K-12 students learn (Darling-Hammond).

Back to School

One criticism of teacher education programs is that they are staffed with Ph.Ds that know only about theory, and little about practice.

Disclaimer:  I was one of those teacher educators for over thirty years, and I must say that my colleagues were very experienced in the practical realities of the K-12 environment.  I guess we had bad press.  But that should change.  Read on.

IMG_0173In a research project which was just published by Michael Dias, Charles Eick, and Laurie Brantley-Dias, entitled Science Teacher Educators as K-12 Educators: Practicing What We Teach, sixteen science educators went back to school and wrote important and astonishing autobiographical papers about their experience.  They all stepped away from their role as a science teacher educator and entered the world of K-12 teaching. They immersed themselves into the real lives of students and teaching, and in this process, experienced the complexity of teaching, and in some cases the difficulty in being successful in the classroom.  The project was the brainchild of Mike Dias, Charles Eick and Lauri Brantley-Dias.

One teacher education researcher revealed, “I lacked the essential knowledge that contributed to my immediate failure as urban, low-track science teacher.”  Another colleague found that because students were not used to doing hands-on activities, they became too excited leading to the breakdown of classroom management.  Another teacher educator realized that not taking into account students’ diverse backgrounds could lead to problems of mundaneness and disconnectedness.  And, another colleague points out that his biggest challenge was to take the content that he knew and teach it in a constructivist, hands-on way that very young students could understand (Hassard, J. (2014). Closing. In M.Dias, C.Eich, L. Brantley-Dias (Eds.), Science Teacher Educators as K-12 Educators: Practicing What We Teach (pp. 287 – 302). Dordrecht: Springer.)

So often teacher education is viewed as an ivory tower experience, with those preparing teachers having little knowledge or experience in real classroom actions and life.  No so with these science teacher educators.

There are 16 examples of teacher educators mingling practice and theory.  I don’t have the space for all of them, but I would like to highlight a couple of them here to support the importance of mingling practice with theory.  The following two accounts are based on (Hassard, J. (2014). Closing. In M.Dias, C.Eich, L. Brantley-Dias (Eds.), Science Teacher Educators as K-12 Educators: Practicing What We Teach (pp. 287 – 302). Dordrecht: Springer.)

Charles Eick: Realistic Teacher Education

IMG_0163Charles Eick gives us his insights into realistic teacher education, a model of teacher education based on the work of Korthagen and Kessels (1999), that draws upon constructivist and inquiry-oriented science education in which teacher education moves from practice to theory, instead of the norm for teacher education in which prospective teachers learn theory and strategies first, followed by practice during internships and student teaching.  In reality, theory and practice are entwined, and Charles provides ample evidence of this.

Charles Eick asked Michael Dias, from Kennesaw State University, to work with him as the lead collaborator in documenting his experience in the classroom.  The Eick/Dias collaboration provides a model for other science educators planning to return to school to “practice what they teach.”

Working together reflectively, Eick and Dias were able to describe for us how they modified the curriculum to meet the needs of their students by including more practical activities, activities that characterized Charles Eick’s middle school teaching when I visited him more than a decade ago, and Michael Dias’ high school biology classroom.  Together they decided that activities and projects including problem solving, engineering, societal issues, and seeking creative solutions by means of technology and creative arts were just the ticket to engage the students.

One of the important aspects of this chapter by Eick, and the others is the goal of democratizing teacher education by encouraging the “mingling of minds” (Robertson 2008).  By going back to the classroom, these teacher education professors show a willingness to change one’s views on teaching, and perhaps move away from ”ivory tower” disconnectedness to the real fulfillment of teaching which arises from daily interactions with youth.

As Eick points out, this is an important aspect of realistic teacher education. Eick explains how perceptions change when one commits to a realistic teacher education approach:

We learn to accept that the classroom teacher is the expert in practice and we are the experts in theory on how to improve the practice of others to maximize student learning. They live in the ‘real world’ and we live in the ‘ivory tower’. However, when one has become both the professor and the teacher through recent classroom teaching experience, this arrangement changes. These traditional lines begin to blur. Teachers in the classroom begin to see you as having expertise in both areas. You have earned the respect as someone who ‘walks the talk.’ And this fact not only enhances your professional credentials, but also allows entrée into further school-based research, collaborative work in teaching and learning, professional development, and many other possibilities for innovative arrangements that benefit both school and university programs.

Ken Tobin: Students as Partners

Students have a source of wisdom that many teachers value in their own practice.  Research by Ken Tobin shows how collaborative self-study can mitigate the top-down reform efforts that as he suggests, “ignore structures associated with curricula enactment and seem impervious to the voices of teachers and students.” Tobin’s discussion of co-teaching (cogenerative dialogue or cogen) is a model that is relevant when we think of mingling theory and practice, but more importantly of professors’ willingness to learn from others who typically would not have been considered sources of knowledge about teaching–high school students and teachers.  And in Tobin’s case, it was a teenager from an urban school, whose population was 90% African-American, and many of them living in poverty, that provided a way forward.  Tobin is quite open about his initial failure as an “urban, low-track science teacher,” and as a result recruited a high school student (as he had asked his teacher education students) for ideas on how to “better teach kids like me.”  Respect (acceptance & trust), genuineness (realness), and empathic understanding appeared to be crucial aspects of the cogen activity that emerged from Tobin’s struggle to work with urban youth.  Tobin puts it this way:

 Although it took us some time to label the activity cogen we created rules to foster dialogue in which participants established and maintained focus, ensured that turns at talk and time for talk were equalized, and that all participants were respectful to all others. The end goal was to strive for consensus on what to do to improve the quality of learning environments. In so doing all participants would endeavor to understand and respect one another’s perspectives, their rights to be different, and acknowledge others as resources for their own learning.

One intriguing notion to take away from Ken’s research was his willingness to give voice—listen–if you will, to students. Are we willing to listen to our teacher education students?  Could our courses at the university level integrate the principles of “cogen” such that students voice is lent to determining the nature of syllabi, agenda topics, and types of investigations?  Should our teacher education courses be co-taught with experienced science teachers?  As Tobin explains, “cogen is an activity that explicitly values the right to speak and be heard.  It is also implicitly based on democratic values, and on the ideas of Roger’s theory of interpersonal relationships.  Being heard is a progressive or humanistic quality that can create an informal classroom environment enabling students who struggle in the formal straightjacket of the traditional class, a meaningful chance of success.

Return to Dewey

I started this article referring to John Dewey and his wish to create environments for social and pedagogical examination.  A contemporary science educator who speaks the language of Dewey is Dr. Christopher EmdinEmdin is an urban science educator and researcher at Teachers College, Columbia University.  His research on teaching science in urban schools focuses on Reality Pedagogy.

Here is a video of Dr. Emdin in which he takes us inside of schools to show how the practical realities of students’ lives can be a part of school science.  Here practice and theory meet in real classrooms.

Like Dewey, Emdin’s pedagogy extends beyond any existent approach to educating urban (hip-hop) youth.  Emdin’s approach is a biographical exploration of how he mingled theory and practice in urban science classrooms (Emdin, 2010).  One of his ideas that resonates with Eick’s and Tobin’s accounts is this:

Becoming a reality pedagogue not only requires an understanding of the hip-hop students’ ways of knowing, but also attentiveness to the researcher/teacher’s fundamental beliefs.  This involves awareness that one’s background may cause the person to view the world in a way that distorts, dismisses or under-emphasizes the positive aspects of another person’s way of knowing.  This awareness of one’s self is integral to the teacher/researcher’s situating of self as reality pedagogue or urban science educator because an awareness of one’s deficiencies is the first step towards addressing them.  The teacher whose students are a part of the hip-hop generations must prepare for teaching not by focusing on the students, but focusing on self.  The teacher must understand what makes her think, where the desire to be a teacher come from, and what the role of science is in this entire process”(Emdin, 2010).

Teaching is not tidy.  It involves a willingness to try multiple approaches, to collaborate with professional colleagues, and students to work through the realities of teaching and learning.  Mingling practice and theory is a powerful approach to prepare any professional, including teachers.